Friday, January 24, 2014

Interview with G.R. Matthews (author of The Stone Road)

Please join me in extending a warm welcome to G.R. Matthews, author of The Stone Road, the first book of The Forbidden List.

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Q: Thanks for taking the time to stop by today, Geoff. For those who haven't yet had a chance to read up on your upcoming release, The Stone Road, please tell us a little about yourself.

A: I grew up in Wiltshire, England, amongst a number of hill forts, long barrows, and white chalk horses. The Avebury stone circle just down the road. A mystical landscape almost on par with New Zealand, except for the lack of mountains, glacial valleys and arêtes. I loved superheroes, like every small boy, and migrated on from comics to novels (I still get the comics, sssssh!) and used to exercise my imagination with AD&D as a teenager. The number of stories I wrote chapter one of, during my late teens, must number in the hundreds. They never got any further.

Eventually, I headed off to University then into an advertising job with a bank, which I quickly left. Back to University and then into teaching. Some of my characters are inspired by pupils and parents I’ve dealt with over the years. The completely alien environment of a school is a rich hunting ground for characters and stories. Where else in life are so many people who would never normally mix thrown together and have to get on, all watched, measured and judged by adults who are, in turn, watched, measured and judged by parents, press and government. It is a realm full of conflict (teenage rebellion), subtext, relationships, ambition, failure, joy and, above all, happy endings (results days).

I wanted to write more than just the opening chapter of a book so I took on an English degree, through the Open University, and began with the creative writing modules. The rest is just hard work, dedication, commitment and a healthy dose of insanity.  

Q: The journey from 'aspiring' to 'accomplished' can be a long one, even in the era of small presses and digital publishing. When did you begin writing The Stone Road, and what has the journey to publication been like?

A: First of all, I wouldn’t call myself accomplished – there are still sections of the book I want to re-write and change. However, if I hadn’t called it a day after edit and re-write 37 or so I never would have got it out the door and onto people’s reading lists.

I started it around four or even five years ago and by start I mean I had the idea and began thinking about the story. Originally it was going to be a short story, my final piece for one the modules on the English Degree - which I still hope to finish one day. I realised that the story I wanted to tell was too long for that so it went to the back of my mind. If you trawl through my old journals you’ll find little notes about the story and characters.

Nothing really went from thinking to writing till the NanoWriMo of 2011. I wanted to get a novel written and I know I need deadlines. I need that pressure to get things done whether external or self-imposed.

To get ‘The Stone Road’ out the door took the Nanowrimo and another year of writing, then another half a year of editing. I loved the creative part, getting the story down, following the characters through twists and turns that they created. You know that lots of writers say the characters take over the story and write it for you? I never believed that until they did it to me.

I was reading Michael J Sullivan’s Riyria books during the editing phase and he has an ‘afterword’ he will send you when you finish the books. I read that and then looked up his blogs about self-publishing. I also spoke, a lot, with a colleague of mine who had just self-published a fantasy book and that seemed to be the way to go. I wanted people to read the story and enjoy it.

Q: In terms of writing, what comes easiest for you, and where do you struggle the most? Is it the title? The first paragraph? The last chapter? The cover blurb?

A: Editing. Re-working the story to ensure that any changes the characters enforced are foreshadowed or reflected earlier in the book was an important part of the edit and one that I was fine with. It is the proof-reading I struggled with. Years ago, one of my pupils (I mentioned I teach?) ran a short and easy psychology test on me. You read a few lines of text out loud and then locate the mistake. I never spotted the mistake and neither, apparently, do the majority of fluent readers. It was simple, a ‘the’ at the end of one line and another ‘the’ following it directly on the line below. I only saw the first one. I tend to read quickly, enjoying the story, and if an ‘a’ or a ‘the’ is missing between words I tend to put it in – I’m sure most of us do. In the end, I had to engage a proof-reader / editor to go through my final draft and pick out any of I’d missed. I can see why traditionally published authors have three editors for each book.

Q: Sometimes, characters can take on a life of their own, pulling the story in directions you hadn't originally anticipated, especially when indulging your imagination. Were there any twists or turns in The Stone Road that surprised you, or really challenged your original plans for the story?

A: Good grief, yes. One in particular was a light bulb, eureka moment. I was writing a scene near the end where one of the heroes enters a house in pursuit of someone and comes face to face with a character I had intended to be the main villain in the book (and in the follow ups) – the deviser of schemes, the hidden threat, that sort of thing. But, as I started to write that scene that light bulb went on and I relegated him, in fact I killed him off, in favour of a character that was more established. The relationships the characters had developed just changed my mind, and the way the story went at that point. Of course, I had to go back and re-work a little here and there. But in terms of narrative flow it just made complete sense. Listen to the characters; they know what they should be doing!

Q: Do you have a soundtrack to your writing, a particular style of music or other background noise that keeps you in the mood, or do you require quiet solitude?

A: Peace and no distractions. The kids need to be in bed, the wife too. I tend to write with headphones on and music playing. I have several playlists that I cycle through depending on mood. The Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack is always good for creating an epic mood but, normally, I listen to music that I know well, that won’t distract me too much; Mumford, Lumineers, and, throughout the editing stage, Kodaline. If it hadn’t been for Kodaline I may not have finished the book! I have to have music playing.

Q: When writing, do you ever consider how a reader or reviewer will react, or do you write solely for your own satisfaction?

A: Probably a little clichéd but I write stories that I want to read. Having said that, I want others to enjoy the story too. So, in the planning and re-working stage I am always trying to think about how a reader would react to this scene, or a character doing something. Does it add something to the plot or character? A reader and reviewer are, these days, with the power of Amazon and Goodreads, almost synonymous. I’m prepared for the 1 star reviews, hopefully they’ll be out-numbered by the 5 star ones! Joe Abercrombie posts his 1 star reviews up on twitter for all to share. If he can get them, or Mark Lawrence, or any of the other fantastic authors out there then they shouldn’t phase the rest of us… too much.

Q: In terms of reader reactions, what is the strangest or most surprising reaction to your work that you've encountered to -date?

A: If you include the short stories, then a few readers, and two of my tutors during the creative writing modules, mentioned that my writing has a poetic feel to it. I must confess to not being a big lover of poetry. Sorry. There is some great poetry out there, and I do own a few collections. However, there can be beauty in a turn of phrase, or a well-chosen word.

Q: To turn from pen to page for a moment, is there a particular author who has influenced or inspired your writing? Somebody who either made you want to write in the first place, or who just refreshes your literary batteries?

A: Eddings really started my love for fantasy. I devoured his books, the Belgariad, in particular. I first read that series when I was 15 or 16 and that coming of age story, the shy boy who goes on to greatness but never loses sight of his origins is fantastic. I like the love story too; in fact I ended up marrying a Ce’nedra alike so maybe Eddings has a lot to answer for.

The book I have read the most, and you’ll see echoes (hopefully of theme rather than writing style) in The Stone Road, is Space Mavericks by Michael Kring. Often on the list of worst books ever, but I love it. He only ever wrote two books out of the trilogy but I always hope that somewhere, someone has the manuscript for the third one. I recall my first copy got so dog-eared and ruined that I had to go to Ebay and get another copy as it is long out of print. I’d recommend it to everyone.

Q: When you're not writing (or reading, for that matter), what are some of the hobbies and passions that keep you busy?

A: I am a geek and proud. So, for me, my spare time, when it is not spent with my children and family, is playing computer games particularly RPGs and MMOs. Failing that I love to watch the best of eighties TV; Knight Rider, McGyver, that kind of thing. Without Lovefilm and Netflix I don’t think I would watch any TV at all.

I also play the guitar. I taught myself to play at University during my Geography Degree and will happily strum along to songs for hours. I reached a point where I wasn’t getting any better – I am not a gifted musician. My brother is and I heartily recommend, if you like rock and blues, to check out Innes Sibun CDs. I got Rocksmith 2014 for Christmas which I have fallen in love with. I can plug my Fender into the PC and play along with REM or the Arctic Monkeys – my lead guitar playing is getting better already. Plus, I wear headphones which my wife loves. Oh, and I am banned from singing.

Q: Assuming you had total creative control over the production, who would you cast as the leading roles, were The Stone Road to hit the big screen?

A: Donnie Yen would play Zhou. If you’ve seen Ip Man then you’ll know why. He has the grace in moving and could play the Diplomat forced into conflict with the vulnerability it needs – especially considering the losses that Zhou faces. For Haung, Jet Li  – someone of a stronger build who has a range of fighting styles. He also has a quite a young face that would fit Haung quite well. Marbu, I’d have Jackie Chan and though it would be against type for him to play someone who is, perhaps, not so nice – I think he’d enjoy the challenge.

You’ve given me an idea; perhaps I should turn it into a screenplay and send it off to them!

Q: Before we let you go, what can we look forward to from you next? Is book 2 of The Forbidden List next, or is there a project on the horizon that you're really excited about?

A: Book 2, ‘The Blue Mountain’, is plotted out and being written, though it is slower going than book 1. I think I learnt a lot writing the first book that makes me second, and sometimes third, guess how I write. After that, Book 3 – I know how it ends but I am excited to see how the characters get to that ending.

However, I have a novella written that I really like and came close to publishing. But, I held back. I think the character has more stories to give and I want to explore those. It is a sci-fi novel and narrated in the first person. I keep thinking about it and making notes in my journal – I probably have enough scenes drafted out to have half a novel written.

A huge thanks to Geoff for stopping by to join us today!

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The Stone Road (#1) by G.R. Matthews
Published November 7th 2013

War between the two cities has lasted for thirty years and now, at last, there is the chance for peace. Zhou of Wubei, a trained negotiator and diplomat must travel to the city of Yaart and seal the peace but rivalries and bitterness exist on both sides.

Haung, a trained warrior, must play the part assigned to him to win the war but enemy threats might be the least of his problems.

There will be peace but on whose terms and at whose behest. It is always darkest before the dawn. On 'The Stone Road' dawn can sometimes be a long, long way away.

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G R Matthews grew up on the edge of the west country, a place renowned for its rolling chalk downs, hill forts and barrows. No surprise then that he turned a love of reading into a the desire to write fantasy novels and science-fiction stories. He holds a degree in Geography and Diploma in Creative Writing (and literature). His son also writes books but being only 6 years old they tend to be short and to the point but it is a start.

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